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Getting Around Portugal: Transportation Tips

From the hilly village of Cevide on the northernmost border to the beaches of Cape of St. Mary in the south, Portugal is only 349 miles long. Size-wise, it’s similar to the state of Indiana — so not too big and easy to traverse.

Flying between cities is generally not necessary — perhaps only if you’re trying to connect between Porto and Faro in a jiffy and can nab a good fare on a budget airline. The major cities are well connected via train and bus; the latter can get you to smaller towns and villages too.

And thanks to well-maintained roads, Portugal is also an easy country to drive on your own. Want to learn more about getting around Portugal? Read on for our transportation tips.

Flying to and Around Portugal

TAP Portugal is the country’s main airline and offers direct flights from the United States, as does United Airlines. The smaller airline SATA offers direct flights between the United States and Portugal, and also serves the Azores.

Overall, more than two dozen major airlines fly to the capital city of Lisbon and to the mainland’s other two international airports in Porto and Faro. To get to the island of Madeira, you’ll fly to Funchal Airport; to land in the Azores, go to Ponta Delgada-Joao Paulo II International Airport on Sao Miguel Island. Europe’s main budget airlines, including easyJet and Ryanair, also offer flights to Lisbon, Porto and Faro.


Portugal by Train

Portugal’s trains are among the least expensive in Europe. They also provide exceptionally pretty scenery, especially in the north. The national train line, Comboios de Portugal (CP), runs all trains, which are modern and reliable.

Trains are categorized according to the distances they cover and how fast they travel. The local trains within Lisbon and Porto are called urbanos. The next step up are regional (regionais, or simply R) and interregional (interregionais or IR). They are used for shorter distances, make frequent stops and do not require reservations. They are also less expensive than the intercity trains (intercidades or IC), which connect all of Portugal’s major cities and towns.

One special line, called Alfa Pendular (AP), runs the length of Portugal from Braga in the north to Faro in the south, stopping in the popular tourist cities of Porto, Coimbra and Lisbon. The AP is the fastest train in Portugal. Regional, interregional and intercity trains run similar routes and are less expensive but slower. AP and intercity trains require reservations.

International trains connect key cities in Spain and Portugal. The Celta train links Porto and Vigo, Spain. The Lusitania overnight train connects Lisbon and Madrid. And the Sud Expresso cuts across Spain from Lisbon, landing in the French town of Hendaye, where you can connect with trains to other European cities. Reservations for these trains can be made on the CP website or on the site of Spain’s national railway, RENFE.

For most of these trains, fares are based on two classes: the lower-priced second/tourist class (turistica) and first-class (conforto). For example, the nearly three-hour ride from Lisbon to Porto aboard the Alfa Pendular costs around 30 euros for tourist class (turistica) or 40 euros for first class (conforto). First-class cars are air conditioned, have reclining seats, and offer food and beverages to purchase.

Tickets can be purchased up to 60 days in advance online, at train station ticket offices or through travel agents. Additionally, you can buy tickets for Alfa Pendular and Intercity trains from Multibanco automated teller machines. (Your ATM receipt serves as your ticket.) If you’re taking a regional train and you board from a station that doesn’t have an open ticket office or a functioning ticket machine, you can purchase your ticket from an onboard attendant.

Some tips for train travel within Portugal:

– Fares are more expensive on Friday afternoons and Monday mornings (during commuting periods), on Sunday afternoons and during holidays. If you’re traveling on these days, consider buying tickets in advance — or at least showing up early at the station.

– If you’re at least 65 years old, have your ID handy and ask if you qualify for the discounted terceira idade rate. (Also, children 12 and under are half price, and those under 4 are free.)

– CP also sells a nationwide Portugal Rail Pass covering three to seven days’ worth of train travel within one month. Bonus: It includes free rides on Lisbon’s city rail system. Eurail also sells a Portugal-only rail pass.


Portugal by Bus

Like most European nations, Portugal has a robust network of well-priced buses that cover the same routes as trains, plus small towns and villages. Multiple private companies run buses, and cities often have several bus terminals — Lisbon has three major ones, for instance — so it can be a bit baffling to sort out your plans.

To keep things simple, first investigate options on the Rede Expressos line. The all-express line has 200 buses that zip to dozens of destinations in Portugal. Regularly updated schedules are online and in English, and Rede Expressos sells nonrefundable tickets on its website and through a mobile app. As with trains, discounts are available for seniors and those under 12.

If Rede Expressos doesn’t meet your needs, other popular bus lines include RENEX (from Lisbon to many southern cities and a handful of big cities in the north) and Rodovaria de Norte (northern Portugal). Note that their websites are in Portuguese only — something to expect when dealing with small bus companies.

If you’re traveling to ultra-rural or off-the-beaten-path destinations, you’ll need to use local bus services, which are slower, less frequent and less predictable. Schedules are posted in bus stations or at bus stops, though don’t be surprised if they’re out of date and not available in English. The nearest tourism office will have the most current information.

If you show up at a bus station and don’t see a ticket booth, go to the nearest cafe; these do double duty as ticket vendors.

For international bus travel, consult Eurolines, which covers Portugal and most of the continent. ALSA is a company to consider for connections between Spain and Portugal.

Resources: (Portuguese only) (Portuguese only)

Renting a Car in Portugal

Though rates can be as pricey here as in the rest of Europe, driving in Portugal is easy and safe. Roads between major cities are well maintained. There are some four-lane highways, including one that runs the 300+ miles between Lisbon and Porto; otherwise, expect two-lane roads throughout the country and unpaved, bumpy and sometimes single-lane roads in rural areas.

Rental cars are available at major airports and in big cities and towns. Agencies in Portugal include Alamo, Budget and Europcar. Avis is the primary rental agency in the Azores and Madeira.

Unless marked differently, national speed limits are usually 50 kilometers per hour (about 31 mph) in cities and towns, 90 kph (56 mph) outside cities and towns, and 120 kph (75 mph) on highways. Along the main highways, gas stations are open 24 hours; elsewhere, hours tend to be from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

If you drive on the main tollway, you’ll encounter some spots with manned tollbooths and others with electronic toll collection systems. Ask your rental car agency representative how the company handles tolls at the unmanned spots (i.e., will the rep give you a transponder to use, or will your credit card be charged later?).


Portugal by Taxi

Taxis are plentiful in big cities like Lisbon, Porto and Faro, and, depending on the time of day and amount of traffic, can be a good deal. They are safe and reliable, provided you follow the same general rules you would anywhere (ask the rate up front, provide the address of your destination — preferably written down in case the driver doesn’t speak English, etc.).

Rates increase at night (generally after 9 p.m.), on weekends, during holidays and when you travel outside the main city. Also, it’s best to call and order a taxi, as it can be difficult to hail one on the street. In Lisbon, official taxis are beige in color.

Resources: (Lisbon taxis; Portuguese only)

Portugal by Boat and Ferry

In Lisbon, you can travel to several points along the Tagus River via Transtejo ferries. These 10- to 30-minute rides make for a lovely and moderately priced way to see the city.

Within the Azores, ferries transport people and vehicles among the nine inhabited islands. Atlanticoline provides summertime service, and Transmacor runs ferries year round. On Madeira, Porto Santo Line is the primary ferry service provider.

As of this writing, no ferries connect mainland Portugal with its islands.

Resources: (Portuguese only) (Portuguese only)

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